I spent a recent weekend on Moskito Island. That’s a story unto itself, which I’ll be sharing. But the return trip was revelatory for me, and I wanted to highlight the two lessons I learned.
I was scheduled to fly from Beef Island (Tortola) to San Juan on Cape Air, connecting to American Airlines to Miami and on to Austin. There’s now a San Juan – Austin non-stop, but American runs it as a redeye in both directions which was useless to me (and the idea of a redeye on an American Airlines Oasis aircraft is just brutal). They don’t have enough gates at San Juan and Austin, so you schedule what you can, and this gets them better aircraft utilization as well.
After checking in for my Cape Air flight, my American flight from San Juan to Miami delays by about 40 minutes, and then gets pushed back another half an hour. The inbound aircraft had gone mechanical in Miami. I now had a negative one minute connection there, and the aircraft that would bring me home to Austin was unlikely to delay since it would be sitting in Miami for a couple of hours before my flight.
Virtually everything on American Airlines was sold out. They didn’t have anything that would get me home same day – and I’d started out leaving my room at 4:30 a.m. A little while later one seat opened on a Miami – Austin flight that would see me home after midnight after an 8 hour delay. I called back to get that flight added to my reservation.
I did see a United Airlines flight that would work and cut my delay in half. The agent didn’t proactively offer to put me on another airline. But I didn’t push for it because I worked on another plan. There was a United departure from San Juan that American wouldn’t be willing to put me on because it was an illegal connection, 44 minutes international-to-domestic. I was going to go for it.
United wanted 73,000 miles for the only available first class seat San Juan – Houston with the connection from Houston to Austin in coach. But I have a large United balance, and I didn’t want to spend the cash for a fully refundable ticket. I knew that if I didn’t make the flight I could still cancel the award and get my miles back by paying a penalty. I booked through the app. And I was off.
I would have a 44 minute connection, meaning I’d be landing right as my United flight began to board. Really I’d have 29 minutes, since I’d need to be on board 15 minutes before departure in order to not lose my seat. And I was wearing loafers when I’d need to corner like I was on rails.
- Clear immigration
- And agriculture inspection
- Then there’s a national guard check for arriving international flights
- Go through security
- Walk to gate
My Cape Air flight boarded in Tortola about five minutes late, but our Cessna landed on time. We had a long circuitous walk around the ramp and in unmarked doors and finally to immigration. There were no agents there, but I used the Global Entry kiosk and there was a single agent situation at customs. Once he’d signed off on me my bags were x-rayed and I was free to go. I had my negative Covid test to show, but the guard agents let me skip the line for their check when I told them I was just connecting. And there was only one person ahead of me for TSA PreCheck. It was inbound aircraft to boarding my connection in less than 25 minutes. United was still boarding group 5.
I’ll get a refund from American for my San Juan – Austin fare, so the United miles aren’t a total loss. And this all meant I’d be home for dinner with my three year old daughter after being gone not just over a three day weekend but having been gone for work the previous week. Being able to see her, and do bedtime with her, was my real priority.
On my United flight I was reminded of two things,
- How bad their internet it. And that’s when it actually worked. The Boeing 737-800 doesn’t even have connectivity over water, and I’d been avoiding the airline primarily because its internet is so bad over land.
- They’ve restored meal service in first class. I had a choice of hot items (eggs or French toast) for breakfast. I didn’t think I could face another American Airlines shrink wrapped turkey sandwich.
MileagePlus has been getting clearly less valuable. But United the airline seems to be getting better. The interior retrofit that’s adding seat back video to planes that do not have it is also putting in new internet. And what happened to Scott Kirby where they’re investing more in food?
My mental model of Scott Kirby was that he’s a destroyer of airlines. He’s largely to blame for the decline of American Airlines since being taken over by Tempe management. He throws shade at them now for not offering seat back video, but that was a decision that dates to his era at the airline. At US Airways he was resistant to installing internet at all for years because he believed they wouldn’t sell the service for more than it cost, and it was only once he saw clearly people choosing not to buy tickets on the airline because they couldn’t give up several hours of productivity to do it that he succumbed.
When Kirby arrived at United he started off as a cost-cutter. It was no surprised to see a pullback in the airline’s Polaris business class soft product. At the start of the pandemic United was flatly dishonest in keeping customer money for flights they did not operate, basically being willing to risk a DOT for acting illegally in order to conserve cash. They devalued MileagePlus twice in 2020.
Yet United was first among the major airlines to eliminate change fees on most fares (albeit initially with some squirrely rules meant to prevent customers from matching lower fares post-purchase) and they’re investing more in their product. I wish I understood what changed in Scott Kirby because then maybe I’d trust the recent investments to mean that they’d somehow committed to become a quality airline. United does seem to be ‘rising’. And the crew that flew me San Juan – Houston was great.